In August, Seattle Democrat Pramila Jayapal was the top vote getter in the all-party primary for a U.S. House seat left open by the retirement of Rep. Jim McDermott, who has represented the state of Washington for the last 28 years. Next week, she’ll likely become the first Indian-American woman elected to Congress.
Later in August, Florida Democrats Val Demings and Darren Soto won Democratic primaries for Orlando seats left open by two white men who decided to run elsewhere. Demings was Orlando’s first black female police chief and is a sure bet to win on Tuesday. Soto will likely be Florida’s first Puerto Rican member of Congress.
And in September, Lisa Blunt Rochester won a little-noticed Democratic primary for Delaware’s open House seat. Come January, the former state labor secretary will in all likelihood become the first woman and African-American to represent the First State in the House.
Meanwhile, Republicans appear headed in the opposite direction.
In March of 2015, Michigan Rep. Candice Miller, Republicans’ only female chair of a standing House committee, announced her retirement — and she will be succeeded by a man. This May, North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, one of just 22 GOP women in the House, was defeated in her primary after redistricting pitted her in the same district against Rep. George Holding.
In August, Republican attorney Mary Thomas, who also could have been the first Indian-American woman in Congress, lost her Florida primary by less than 2,000 votes to urologist Neal Dunn, even though she had heavy backing from the conservative Club for Growth. That same day, former GoDaddy.com executive Christine Jones was upset in a GOP primary for an Arizona House seat by just 27 votes against state Sen. Andy Biggs.
Much of this year’s conversation has obsessed about Donald Trump’s potential to destroy what’s left of the Republican Party’s standing with women and minorities. But the party’s image problem goes much deeper than Trump.
In short, Republican elected leaders don’t look at all like America’s electorate. Today, 87 percent of House Republicans are non-Hispanic white men, compared with just 43 percent of House Democrats. For context, in 2014 just 34 percent of eligible U.S. voters were non-Hispanic white men. And although Republicans are heavily favored to hold the House this year, the demographic gap between the parties is poised to get even wider in 2017.
Why have Democrats elected more women and minorities while Republican diversity has stagnated? Democrats represent far more heavily minority districts. But primary voters’ ideals matter a great deal, too.
Two years ago, we pointed out that more Democratic voters than Republican voters embrace the idea that Congress should better reflect the country’s demographics. In July 2014, Gallup asked, “Do you think this country would be governed better or governed worse if more women were in political office?” Among Democrats, 75 percent said better, and just 10 percent worse. But among Republicans, the idea was far less resonant: 46 percent said better; 19 percent said worse.
Democrats are on the cusp of electing the nation’s first female president, but Hillary Clinton also hopes to sweep in a large class of new female Democratic senators: Kamala Harris in California, Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, Deborah Ross in North Carolina and Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans could lose a woman if New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte falls short. But no matter who wins, the Senate GOP won’t gain a single woman.
In the House, there are 40 competitive races, including 19 rated as a toss-up by Cook Political Report, so we can’t be sure how every race will turn out. But for purposes of creating an estimate, we assigned a probability for each House seat: how likely it is to be won by a Democratic non-Hispanic white man, a Democratic woman or minority, a Republican non-Hispanic white man, or a Republican woman or minority.
If Tuesday’s results follow these projections, the white male share of the House Democratic caucus would decline another 2 percentage points to 41 percent, while the white male share of the House Republican conference would actually increase a point to 88 percent. That would make for a 47-point gap. So regardless of who wins the first presidential between a woman and a man, Congress is on pace to set yet another new record for the widest partisan demographic gulf in history.
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